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EA Investing in the Next-Generation with Proceduralism Post-SSX

Alex J. Champandard on May 21, 2012

Procedural generation techniques have been used with great success to create gameplay in indie games, for example DWARF FORTRESS. Yet AAA developers have been more cautious, primarily using proceduralism to generate minor cosmetic details or randomize the assembly of pre-built blocks.

In an interview broadcast live via AiGameDev.com on Sunday, Electronic Arts Canada's Caleb Howard talked about the huge bet that SSX took on procedural generation, and how it helped the studio generate hundreds of tracks for the game rather than dozens. This approach is now in further development at EA for future titles.

NOTE: Each weekend, interview or masterclass broadcasts on AiGameDev.com are free to attend live. You can watch the replays for two weeks with a PLUS Subscription, and get the full edited recording with PREMIUM or ULTIMATE Memberships.

Procedural vs. Automated

One of the major hurdles that larger studios face when adopting procedural techniques is objections from designers and artists, as Howard points out.

“This has been the biggest challenge of my career and I've been doing procedural workflows for at least 20 years. A lot of the resistance that you meet upfront are from people who feel you're trying to put them out of work by automating what they do.”

However, there's a large spectrum of tasks that procedural techniques are suited to, and there's always a compromise or solution to be found.

“The logical conclusion of procedural generation in some cases could be an automated process, but on the way there is where most of the fruit is found. [...] That's where proceduralism comes in; it's finding the redundance and mundane aspects of the job and streamlining those by making machines do the work.”

On SSX, Howard says that buy-in from all the key stakeholders was key to making the project successful, trying to invest in procedural techniques as much as possible but maintaining a level of pragmatism.

Workflow and ROI

The final production pipeline on SSX includes a significant portion of procedural tools (based on Houdini), however, it was also necessary to include more traditional tools such as Maya for artists to finalize the levels just before shipping.

“A major challenge of SSX which was non-technical was the introduction of a large crew of people to new methods and getting comfortable with them, while at the same time developing a game. [...] It's a tribute to the artists that they were able to cope with this workflow, being thrust into this situation without a couple of years to get used to the ideas.”

On SSX, the challenges and benefits of the procedural pipeline were emphasized by a change in direction in the middle of the project, switching from a more realistic look and feel to something much more extreme with old-school gameplay. Howard mentions how the tools managed to cope well with the situation, and still provide orders of magnitude quicker results.

Of course, the workflow could be taken even to further reduce turn-around times.

“If we had to develop the tools again, we'd bring the artists in much sooner and develop the tools directly with their participation. [...] Previously, it took two weeks of designer work before they could had it to the artists, and they would spend three and five weeks polishing that track up. I'm confident we could build a track from scratch to something relatively polished in the space of a few days.”

Electronic Arts, like many other publishers, has been relying on business practices such as in-sourcing (to other EA studios) and outsourcing (to external companies), but Howard sees the potential for procedural to help here:

“I can't speak to EA's business practices, but the types of demands that we have met in the past with outsourced labor could very easily be met with in-house labor and more efficient tools.”

Going Next-Generation

When asked about the interest in procedural techniques, Howard mentions there's huge demand from within Electronic Arts from all the different content-creation departments.

“As EA moves into the future with new hardware on the horizon and new methodologies to accomodate that, we've realized we're going to need a lot more content! The business model doesn't change so we can charge 10x as much. [...] All of the domain leads (character, environment, lighting) have been talking to the procedural crew to see how they can get the most advantages out of a procedural workflow.”

As Howard mentions online games, it's clear to see how procedural techniques could help generate new tracks or levels that can be purchased for small amounts from within the game. As EA transitions into a mostly engineering-driven business model where games act as a service, procedural workflows will play a key role.

Further Details

In the remainder of the interview about SSX, Howard discusses many of the technical details about the generation of the mountains including:

  • What were the major design decisions for a procedural workflow that made it work.
  • How the track is generated for varying levels of difficulty and player skill according to high-level parameters.
  • What tools are used to manage the procedural generation code and how they combine together in a pipeline.

If you have any questions or comments about the use of procedural techniques on SSX, or their benefits for Electronic Arts as a publisher, don't hesitate to post them!

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